Cool, calm Lowe tosses gem in debut
Righty throws eight scoreless innings, gets early support
PHILADELPHIA -- With a frenzied crowd prepared to bring the defending World Series champion Phillies into the 2009 season, Derek Lowe wasn't provided the best setting to make a good first impression on the Braves while simultaneously attempting to exorcise his Opening Day demons.
But with assistance from an early power supply highlighted by confidence-building homers drilled by Jordan Schafer and Jeff Francoeur, Lowe handled his emotions and more importantly, silenced both Phillies fans and a lineup that had frustrated him during last year's National League Championship Series.
Consequently, after scattering two hits over eight scoreless innings on Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park, Lowe found himself enjoying the 4-1 Opening Night win that the Braves claimed over the Phillies.
"My last three Opening Day starts were awful, and I knew this was going to be a big challenge coming in here with the Phillies coming off a world championship, and with this being an extremely tough park to play in," Lowe said. "But it went about as good as possible for me."
Lowe, who was 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his only three previous Opening Day starts, looked like a genuine ace. He induced 13 ground-ball outs, recorded four strikeouts and essentially gave his outfielders an opportunity to remain idle while a vibrant Philadelphia crowd grew more silent as the evening progressed.
While pitching for the Dodgers in last year's NLCS, Lowe pitched effectively during his two starts against the Phils. With this being his third straight start against them, he was determined to avoid the pitfalls that denied him the opportunity to win either of those two games.
"You've got so much confidence in a guy like that," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He really knows how to pitch."
Other than jokingly saying that Lowe went to a three-ball count twice, Cox had every reason to shower Lowe with praise during his postgame media session. The 36-year-old sinkerballer surrendered a third-inning ground-rule double to Carlos Ruiz on a grounder that was touched by a fan along the left-field foul line.
Following the Ruiz double, Lowe retired 10 straight before Jimmy Rollins snuck a two-out single through the middle of the infield in the eighth. No further damage was incurred during the inning and the Braves right-hander threw just 14 pitches during his final two innings of the night.
While he'd struggled during his previous Opening Day starts, Lowe had enjoyed plenty of previous success in this ballpark that is recognized as an offensive haven. In four career regular-season starts at Citizens Bank Park, he's 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA.
"It's a great start for us," Francoeur said. "We wanted to come out and do what we did tonight. You couldn't ask for anything more from Derek. Two hits in eight innings against this kind of team might happen two times a year at best."
Nobody could have asked for a better start than Schafer and Francoeur enjoyed. Following the lead of Brian McCann, who damaged Brett Myers with a two-out, two-run homer in the first inning, these two outfielders kicked off the season in impressive fashion.
While becoming the first Braves player since 1981 to be in the starting lineup while making his Major League debut, Schafer capped a two-run second inning with a solo shot to center field. With his memorable blast, he became just the fourth player in franchise history to homer during his first career at-bat.
"It was awesome," Schafer said. "As soon as I hit it, I said 'Wow.' It was amazing."
Coming off a frustrating 2008 season during which he hit .239 and totaled 11 homers, Francoeur opened this season by hitting the first pitch he saw over the left-field wall. His second-inning leadoff homer off Myers helped the Braves build a lead that was never in doubt until closer Mike Gonzalez encountered some ninth-inning struggles.
Struggling with his control, Gonzalez surrendered a leadoff double to Eric Bruntlett and later walked to Chase Utley to bring Ryan Howard up as the potential tying run. But just when it looked like the Braves might duplicate last year's frustrations by blowing another sizeable lead to the Phillies, the left-handed reliever ended the game with consecutive strikeouts of Howard and Raul Ibanez.
"We never let the fans get into the game until the ninth, and then of course, Gonzo came back, settled down and did a great job," Francoeur said. "This is a tough place to play."
Francoeur and some of the other Braves felt that during pregame introductions, the Philadelphia crowd was as loud as any they've ever experienced. Some of those same fans started booing when Schafer drilled his homer.
But while the power was necessary, the evening's tone was set by Lowe, who finally found a way to manage the Opening Day jitters that had always conquered him in the past.
"I tried to enjoy it maybe more," Lowe said. "I tried to sit back and take it all in because you don't know how many of these you'll ever get again. So I think that helped. I wasn't as amped up and trying so hard. I more enjoyed the moment and I think that definitely helped."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.